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Dispatches from the Mid-Atlantic: I’ve Got a Bone to Pick

Posted by Phillippa Pitts on July 22, 2013 in Dispatches from the Mid-Atlantic |

by columnist Madeline Karp

I think I might be desensitized to extra disgusting things. I regularly see kids eating things they definitely shouldn’t eat. I’ve seen lots and lots of blood spurting from noses and foreheads and knees after tumbles down stairs. I get sneezed on, and coughed on, and just this week a toddler wiped her wet thumb – fresh from a good thirty minutes of sucking – right down my neck.

Maybe it’s part of working at a children’s museum.

Or maybe I watch too much HBO. I don’t know.  Past roommates have found me watching shows like Bones or Game of Thrones in all of their bloody, maggoty glory over breakfast. Literally. Eating breakfast, watching gore.

So of course I was fascinated – and not the least bit grossed out – to hear that an Italian forensic pathologist has been exhuming medieval and Renaissance corpses to study their pathology and determine cause of death.

The leading scientist on this program is Dr. Gino Fornaciari, a paleopathologist from the University of Pisa. Fornaciari initially trained as a medical doctor, but soon his interest in history, archaeology and anthropology melded with his formalized training to create a new field – paleopathology, or the study of ancient disease.

Italian-Renaissance-Dr-Gino-Fornaciari-5

Fornaciari is the world’s leading Renaissance coroner, as it were. So he doesn’t study corpses. He takes on “patients.”

His current patient – at the time of Smithsonian Magazine’s publication – is Cangrande della Scala, a Veronese warlord whose cause of death had long been listed as “catarrhal fever.”  He also showed symptoms of early and advanced arthritis and black lung.

Spoiler alert!

None of these things killed him. Cangrande was murdered. Trace amounts of chamomile, foxglove and digoxin were found in Cangrande’s stomach, suggesting he had been given a cup of poisoned tea. His death would have looked like cardiac arrest, caused by extreme gastrointestinal distress.

Thanks to teams of scientists like Fornaciari’s, historians and museum curators can now paint a better picture of the past. Once puzzling questions like, How could a thirty year old Renaissance nobleman show signs of severe calcification of the knees, advanced arthritis, and symptoms of black lung? are no longer mysteries.

Italian-Renaissance-female-skeleton-1

The calcification and arthritis are what Fornaciari calls “knightly markers” – skeletal indications that the nobleman spent a lot of time in heavy armor and astride a horse. The “black lung” now almost exclusive to coal miners and chain smokers, was far more common before electricity because fire smoke clouded bedrooms, banquet halls and other indoor spaces.

But of course, scientific inquiry always comes with a price.

In 2009, Fornaciari, alongside Paolo Galluzzi, director of Florence’s Museo Galileo, announced plans to exhume the body of Galileo in honor the 400th anniversary of his telescope. The plan was to conduct a DNA study to discover the true cause of Galileo’s eye deterioration. Was it caused by looking at sun spots? Or was it genetic? Environmental? A combination?

Italian historians balked. They cried grave desecration, claiming that relics and graves were to be left alone for believers and the faithful, and not to be disturbed in the name of science. Fornaciari’s plans were halted.

Italian-Renaissance-Simona-Minozzi-excavates-grave-16

I understand where the historians are coming from. I understand ritualistic belief. For example, I always wash my hands after leaving a cemetery so as not to bring errant spirits into my house. My coworker wears a specific baseball cap initialed by her father for Phillies games. I don’t think the 5:00PM peanut butter and jelly sandwich is in any way weird. It’s just what people choose to believe.

That said forensic pathology has helped us in so many ways. Without it, we wouldn’t have known about the cannibalism in Jamestown during the winter of 1609-1610. We wouldn’t know that Cosimo de Medici was almost certainly diabetic. In the same way forensics helps paint the details of a crime scene I think it can help recreate the details of history. I’ve always found that the more vivid the details, the wider the interested audience.

Where do you fall on this issue? Is it okay to exhume famous bodies for forensic study? Or is it grave desecration? Can having more medical detail open historic exhibitions up to new audiences?

Share your thoughts with me in the comments!

To read the full article about Gino Fornaciari and his patients, check out this article featured in the July/August 2013 issue of Smithsonian Magazine.

Note: All of the photos in this post come from the original Smithsonian article.

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